Words From The Road

It’s mostly the travel that I hate in my job. I’d much rather be at home, able to pursue projects at home and volunteering with the library and literacy program, instead of mouldering in a hotel room in such fortresses of culture as Modesto or Riverside.

But there are some good parts to the job; those are mostly the people that I work with. When you’re sitting in a community services building doling out shell polishing kits to bleary-eyed mollusks by the hundreds, your down time can get downright surreal. Beyond Seinfeld surreal.

I had this conversation the other day with N. during a five-minute lull between classes:

N.: My pen ran out of ink at the client check-in table just now.

Me: That sucks. What did you do?

N.: Well, I borrowed A.’s pocketknife and started having the mollusks sign their paperwork with my blood.

Me: Yeah, I thought you were looking a little pale.

Things like that.

I handed a form to A. once, and the following conversation ensued:

A.: (Handing the paper to N.) I have no idea what this is supposed to be.

N: (Handing it back to me) What is it, anyway?

A: It’s almost as if you have absolutely no business training at all.

Me: (handing the paper back to A.) You know, I don’t even really work here.

A.: (Handing the paper one last time to N.) That’s what makes this so hard.

Bonus points to you if you can figure out what scene we were reliving.

When you’ve been at the training site since 7:30 and it’s now 2:30 in the afternoon and you’ve been on your feet, constantly moving around, with only 30 minutes to sit down for lunch and far too much coffee, weird things just seem to start happening.

Starting next week, I’m going to be in Riverside County for three solid weeks, including one full weekend; and every working day, including that Saturday, is going to be from 10 to 7. And the training site is supposedly 40 miles away from the hotel.

Yeah. This is just going to keep getting weirder.

The FBI Is Following Me to Sacramento!

Some very important mollusks end up on public assistance; they’ll tell you themselves. Often at great length, if you let them.

Yesterday, we had a woman come in who didn’t speak a word of English, and whose Spanish was so fast and slurred I couldn’t understand her at all. My Spanish is good enough so I can hold my own in most simple conversations that don’t involve the past tense, but I had to ask for one of the county-provided translators to speak with her. And the translator — for whom Spanish was her first language — kept saying, “Mas despacio! Mas despacio, por favor!” Slower! Slower, please!

Turns out that this high-speed woman — who couldn’t have stood more than three feet tall — had received a letter informing her that she didn’t need to use the new shell polishing kit if she didn’t want to. And she was just about to head up to Sacramento because she was going to have a special meeting with the government (she works for the government, you see) and she needed to hurry because the FBI was following her.

Both the translator and I refrained from asking why such an important person was on benefits.

Today, the same woman returned. But when we asked her why she had come back, she denied at first that she had been here before. Then she said that it was her sister that had come in yesterday. Then she muttered something about the FBI confusing us all.

The places I’ve been to haven’t been nearly as interesting, on the whole, as Jennifer’s adventures in San Francisco. After all, when you think “banal”, it’s hard to come up with a better definition than Modesto, California. The mollusks here are fairly calm and, on the whole, pretty easy to work with. We have yet to play a single round of “Is That A Man Or A Woman?”, but every place has its charms.

Today, for example, I’ve been noticing smells and scents. Most of the mollusks I’ve met have had fairly neutral scents. But not all. The father/son drinking team, for example, who showed up for this morning’s 8:30 session both smelled of Jameson’s Irish whiskey (a scent I’m quite familiar with from my college days). Then there was the woman who smelled overwhelmingly of apple juice: I had flash backs to my childhood for some reason.

And, of course, there was the woman dressed in a ragged T-shirt and sweat pants who smelled as though she had bathed so deeply in cheap perfume, I expected to see drops of it dripping off of her as she walked into the room. I found the meshing of the ratty clothing and the overwhelming perfume intriguing. Where, I wondered, was she going such that she needed such a surreal mix of casual and tacky? To work, perhaps — perhaps she’ll change into some uniform once she gets there. Something to match the perfume, maybe, though I am having a hard time imagining anything so exotic.

Merced, which is where I’m located this week, is located near enough to Atwater so that certain trends and fashions can migrate easily, the way cultural traditions migrate between continents over time. For example, today I met Arnold’s girlfriend. I knew that she was Arnold’s girlfriend because his name was tattooed in several places on her arm. And on her wrists. And the backs of her hands. And across her collarbone, in case she ever found herself in front of the mirror wondering whose girlfriend she was.

And finally, the trip to Merced from the hotel is usually a quiet one, but it’s marked by at least two notable sights. The first is the sign which I’ve alluded to earlier, the one that reads “Rubber Belting for Cows”. The second is the office building in the shape of the huge bulldozer. At first I thought it was just a statue or a piece of public art, but I’ve seen people inside of it, sitting in chairs. Apparently it’s an agricultural company. Go figure.

Trans-Specific Chicken

We were all eating lunch — a feast from Taco Bell delivered to the training site by one of our team — when M., one of my fellow mollusk trainers, made an important discovery.

“Hey!” she said, outraged. “This isn’t chicken in my taco. It’s steak!”

“Impossible,” said N., with a look of incredulity. “I placed the order myself. Trust me, it’s chicken.”

M. scoffed at N. “You’re wrong. It’s steak. Look at it!”

N. refused to look, preferring the willful blindness of one who knows that he is right and refuses to let a quibbling little thing like reality prove him otherwise. “It’s chicken,” he insisted. Of course he was joking. It was obviously steak in M’s taco. But denial is more fun.

So M. turned to A., who was sitting right next to her. “Look!” she commanded imperiously. Her Russian accent heightened the effect, lending a Stalinesque quality to her voice. “It’s steak, isn’t it?”

Wisely, A. said, “I refuse to become involved in this.”

So M. turned to me. I’d been sitting quietly, reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on my Palm Pilot and munching on my quesadilla. “Richard, is this chicken or steak in my taco?”

That wasn’t the strangest question I’d ever been asked. So I looked, and announced that it it was difficult to tell, what with the sour cream. However, upon ponderous scrutiny, I could definitely determine that it was steak.

“Impossible!” said N. He was sticking to his story.

“Well,” I said after a few moments’ thought, “perhaps it’s a chicken dressed up like a steak.”

“Do you mean a transgendered chicken?” asked J., who had demonstrated her considerable wisdom by not getting involved in this discussion before now.

“Not really transgendered,” I explained. “It’s not a rooster that wants to be a hen. It’s a chicken that wants to be a cow. It’s a trans-specific chicken.”

“I’m a cow trapped in the body of a chicken!” exclaimed N. in a moment of sensitivity.

“But what do you call such a chicken?” asked M. “Is it a chicken or a cow?”

A. assumed an authoritative voice. “However it identifies itself is what you should call it,” he said. “If it calls itself a cow, then you should call it a cow.” A. had just spent a couple of weeks conducting mollusk training in San Francisco, so he was very sensitive to these issues.

“That’s right,” J. said. “Some chickens just like to dress up like cows, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they really want to be cows.”

N. looked thoughtful. “I wonder,” he said, “if you can get specially made rubber belting for chickens that want to be cows.” This was in reference to a sign we’d seen driving in to the site that morning. It read:


God alone knows what that means.

We talked for a little while after that, but not for much longer. I was asked if trans-specific chickens were allowed to hang out with the cows; I said that they were, but not when the cows went out drinking (”Why not?” I was asked; “Because those are strictly hay bars,” I replied), and things pretty much went downhill after that.

At dinner that night, A. mentioned trans-specific chickens. Jennifer said, “What? What’s that?”

J. stepped in. “It’s a Richard thing,” she said.

To which my wife simply replied, “Ah, I see.” And, apparently, that was explanation enough for her.

The Thing Is…

..that I’m not any more convinced now than I ever was that Saddam Hussein and Iraq pose any serious threat at all to the United States or our interests. Oh, yes, it’s always nice to rid the world of a dictator or two, but there are plenty of maniacal dictators in the world that we’re not doing anything about; just look at a couple of countries in Africa for an idea of what I’m talking about. Or South America. Some of those guys support al Qaeda, and some of them feel absolutely no qualms whatsoever about slaughtering their citizens for being the wrong race or for just being in the way.

While my own patriotism is unwavering, and I love my country, I am deeply, deeply ashamed of what our leadership has done. We’re in violation of many of the principles and efforts we’ve made since the Second World War to unify and bring peace to our world. We’ve defied the United Nations, NATO, and many of our closest allies.

Well, if W.’s presidency is anything like his father’s, he’ll experience the highest approval ratings of all time shortly; then he’ll tank on the issue of the economy and lose the White House to a Democrat in 2004. One can only hope.

And to any international readers of mine: the man who currently holds the office of President of the United States does not act with the will of all Americans; there are many of us who oppose the President’s actions and who are ashamed of what he has done. There are many of us who hope for a quick end to the war, as well as a quick repair of the alliance and careful balance of global power that we have sought since the end of the Second World War.

At Atwater

This week, I’m in the town of Atwater, California, where mollusk training is proceeding just fine. Although the adventures I’ve been having are nowhere near as interesting as the adventures that Jennifer has been having in San Francisco, we have had our share of fun.

Atwater itself intrigues me. The sign just outside the town announces that the population is about 23,000 people; and, driving through the streets of this city you have to wonder just where it is that they all live. There are no vast stretches of suburban tract housing that I can see; no tall apartment buildings; no charming and quaint little country homes with perfect lawns and picket fences. Atwater does, however, have a lot of nameless trailer parks. At least one of them is right next to the wrecking yard as well, providing a very scenic site as we drive past.

But the main thing about Atwater is that there is an old, abandoned air force base there. Given the difficulty that we had in finding it, and the difficulty in finding it that many of the mollusks reported to me, I think that the main reason it was shut down was just because no one could find it. I imagine President Clinton saying to some aide, “Where the hell is Atwater?” And the aide replying, “I have no idea, sir. Should we just close it down?” And President Clinton replying, “Huh? What? Oh, sure, whatever, ’scuse me, got a meeting with an intern right now.”

The most interesting feature of Atwater for me is the abandoned barracks. It’s really surreal to drive past an entire neighborhood which has been thoroughly deserted. It’s like a scene from some post-apocalyptic suburban horror movie; the streets and houses look just like streets and houses in any other neighborhood, but the lawns are all overgrown and spilling out into the streets and the windows are all boarded up. Add to that the chain link fencing which surrounds the entire neighborhood, and that sense of doom is perfectly accessorized.

The mollusks themselves are fairly pleasant on the whole, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. I have to admit, though, that I get the impression that the main form of entertainment in Atwater is tattooing each other; I have never seen so many people with so many cheap-looking tattoos all together in one place outside of a biker bar. It’s positively astounding! I have never, in all my days, and I mean never, pondered the possibility of having the name of someone tattooed across the bridge of my nose, no matter how much I loved them. While one of my coworkers, Mr. T, thinks that there might be a cultural element at play here, another coworker, Guy Smiley, reminds me that there is a Federal penitentiary in Atwater. Maybe what I’m seeing are just prison tats. That’s certainly possible, and it explains the quality of the tattoos.

But today’s big excitement came shortly after our lunch break when one of the mollusks suffered a grand mal epileptic seizure in the lobby where we were conducting our training. Thank God he was okay afterwards, and thank God we had barnacles nearby who were well-versed in first aid and who could respond appropriately to the seizure. The paramedics weren’t needed. And no one was injured. We managed to keep him comfortable while he was recovering, and let him sleep on the floor of the training room for a little while while we conducted our classes as normal.

Afterwards, two of his family members and a barnacle helped this particular mollusk stand up, and he staggered — weak, trembling, and covered in sweat — out of the front door, past other mollusks who were waiting patiently for their own shell polishing kits. Of course, they stared, though I did my best to keep them at a distance and quiet. But I admit that there was a part of me — and not really all that tiny a part — that wanted to point at the shaky, trembling, sweat-drenched mollusk and tell the others, “See? See? This is what happens when you forget your paperwork!” Fortunately, the more discreet part of my mind prevailed. It was a relief, though, to discover that one of the barnacles had just as sick a sense of humor as I.

In a way, it was all kind of surreal, and my gallows-humor reaction was absurd. But, then, any day which begins with CNN announcing that the House of Representatives had changed the name of “French Fries” in the House Cafeteria to “Freedom Fries” to protest France’s temerity in disagreeing with the US over Iraq really can’t help but be surreal and absurd. And just a touch asinine.